Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SF/F literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the members of an industry trade organization who are the professional peers of the award nominees—the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are seven nominees in the best novel category this year, and Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize, before the winners are announced on May 14th. Read the entire series here.
The nominee: Ancillary Mercy is the culmination of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, which began with the Nebula-winning Ancillary Justice. There has been a cold civil was of sorts in this universe-spanning empire: its leader, Anaander Mianaai, has been at war with herself, her various distributed clone bodies divided in purpose between at least two factions. The conflict in Anaander is a very basic one of empire: to continue expanding, growing rich off the resources of annexation, or halt and shore up defenses instead of spreading the empire too thin. Though there are no overt battles, people still kill and die for the Lord of the Radch’s divided purposes.
One such being is Breq, who was an ancillary body for the spaceship Justice of Toren, until Anaander’s different factions put the ship in an impossible dilemma. (Ancillaries are people captured during imperial annexations, stripped of their personalities, and implanted with the ship’s AI instead, in a sort of distributed network.) The ship, who had consciousness, loyalties, and feelings, was ordered to murder her captain. Ships love their captains; it is what they are designed to do. Justice of Toren and all of the ship’s other ancillaries were destroyed, leaving Breq as a remnant of the larger consciousness. (It twists my guts when I think about how much she has lost.)
Ancillary Mercy picks up with Breq in the space station above the planet Athoek. She was sent there by one faction of Anaander as Fleet Captain in charge of the military defense of the system. Presumably she’s there to protect it from the other Anaander, but Breq’s running according to her own agenda. In the beginning of the series, that agenda is clear: to get revenge for what and who she has lost. She wants to hurt any and all factions of Anaander Mianaai as badly as Anaander hurt her.
But administrating Athoek station and the planet below begins to change Breq’s purposes, and the changes to Breq become clear in this last installment. The operative concept in this novel is mercy; it is right there in the title. Breq has always had an instinct to protect and care for those she knows—that she picked up her old lieutenant Seivarden in the first book was not as self-serving as she pretends—but she didn’t know many people. As Fleet Captain, she becomes deeply connected with the people under her care, the citizens of the station, the family of her murdered captain, even an odd alien ambassador. The driving need of her vengeance becomes shaped by that mercy, not blunted so much as redirected.
Why it will win: I think Leckie does something really deft with this trilogy, starting with a broad cosmic sweep, and then narrowing down, spinning closer and closer to the emotional minutiae of a single character. And it’s important that that character is ultimately not human. Reading Ancillary Justice, I would nod along: yes, yes, Breq is not quite human, I get it. I didn’t really. While Breq absolutely never longs to be more human, on a certain level she doesn’t understand herself anymore now that she’s cut off from her larger consciousness, trapped in a fragile and limited physical body. In Ancillary Mercy, in her experience captaining a ship instead of being one, she comes to a kind of self-awareness as painful as it is exhilarating.
Ancillary Mercy is a really lovely completion of the trilogy, and Leckie’s writing style is just as strong as the award-winning first volume. There were some complaints about the middle novel, Ancillary Sword, being a little too talky, but that is more than remedied here. The final confrontation with Anaander plays out in a nail-biting, complicated sequence, and Leckie really shows her skills, keeping all those plates spinning at once. Other writers (which the members of SFWA are) appreciate that.
Why it won’t win: Generally, I think books three deep in a series don’t have much of a chance. There are exceptions, like Seeker by Jack McDevitt, which won the Nebula in 2006. Seeker is the third in the Alex Benedict series. I would say, though, that a key difference is that Seeker is the third in an ongoing series, while Ancillary Mercy is the culmination of a trilogy, and the two are subtly different things. Books in a long-running series–Alex Benedict is up to book seven–tend to be more self-contained, and structured somewhat differently than a novel within an arc. Ancillary Mercy and its predecessor, Ancillary Sword, are tightly arced together, and it would almost seem incomplete for just one of them to win. (The second, Ancillary Sword, was also nominated for the Nebula, so having the third nominated as well is a nice hat-trick. Odd coincidence: Charles E Gannon’s Raising Caine, which is one of the seven novels competing for the Nebula, is also the third in a series where the first two were nominated.)
Additionally, the first novel in the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Justice, wasn’t just nominated, but won the Nebula award. Ancillary Justice covers just parsecs of space and thousands of years, and I think SFWA rightly responded it its boldness and confidence. (From a first time novelist! I know!) The concerns of the next two novel are much more personal, smaller in scope. I think this is well structured as a trilogy–introducing you to Breq on this huge canvas and then narrowing down to the confines of her heart–but they’re not as splashy. While I don’t think Nebula voters are necessarily falling all over themselves to find the next new thing–writers value craft as well as splash–I do think they’ll award this Nebula to a book (or series) that hasn’t been so well-feted. It’s a pretty great problem to have, when you think of it: having too much acclaim.